GLBT Historical Site offers searchable database of AIDS-era obituaries

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What would it have been like if social media such as Facebook had been around during the AIDS crisis? It’s hard to say, but there is something like an approximation of it at the GLBT Historical Site—its archive of AIDS-era obituaries.

The database, which was launched on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2009, has an archive of obituaries that ran in the Bay Area Reporter from January 1979 to the present, searchable by name or by date, as well as a “random obituary” feature.

It might sound callous, even homophobic, to call obituaries the gay news of the 1980s and 1990s, but in an era when LGBT people were virtually never acknowledged in the media and had few outlets of their own, obituaries truly were the queer community’s chance to see themselves represented, to learn about other lives, beyond just what they could pick up via local gossip and the people they knew personally.

Not everyone in the archive died of HIV/AIDS, and it can be difficult to discern who did—in the early days, uncertainty ruled, and later on stigma prevented many obituaries from being specific about cause of death. The details of each life and death are often scarce enough to require reading between the lines, but the database, created by the hard work of volunteer Tom Burtch, is still a rich resource for anyone interested in Bay Area LGBT history.

In addition to personal details about each person, the obituaries reveal a great deal about the times in which they lived and died. In an early obituary, dated November 18, 1982, Patrick Cowley, a respected musician and producer, is listed as having “lost his long-term battle with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia,” which is most commonly seen in those with compromised immune systems. The only use of the actual word AIDS, adopted by the Center for Disease Control just two months earlier in September 1982, is the note above the obituary itself, “AIDS Victim.”

Not even a year later, on March 24, 1983, an obituary was printed with the headline “AIDS Victim ‘Pulled the Plug.’” The person memorialized is Jim Gresham, noted as “the AIDS patient written up in the Jan. 6 Bay Area Reporter who elected to discontinue intravenous feeding rather than be dependent on machines for an extended length of time.” The obituary reports that his service was attended “by Gresham’s sister and her family” as well as “by some of Gresham’s co-workers, neighbors, and friends,” but there is no mention of his parents anywhere in the article—and as he was only thirty-five, it was reasonably likely one or both were still alive.

As heartbreaking as the early memorials are, there are still signs of hope even before AIDS became more than an automatic death sentence; in an obituary dated October 9, 1988, David A. Ruiz’s three-year battle with AIDS is called “courageous,” and it notes that he died with his mother, his siblings, and his life partner at his side. Moreover, it says, “God ended David’s suffering to join his father John and his brother Robert in eternal happiness.”

Tom Burtch told 429Magazine, “The majority of the obituaries—especially those from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s—reflect the devastating effect of AIDS in San Francisco. Nearly 20,000 people just in our city have died of the disease. San Francisco is one of the first places where AIDS was recognized, so we feel a special responsibility to ensure that the toll taken by the epidemic is never forgotten. This website honors those we have lost, and it also reminds us that the fight isn’t finished. Even as we document the history of AIDS, we that know AIDS is not history.”

The GLBT Historical Society’s media consultant, Gerard Koskovich, said that as of November 2, the database now includes 10,423 obituaries.

429Magazine

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